Sunday, January 02, 2011

Insouciant

A visitor to my writing group complained (gently) about my use of insouciant in a story. He said it brought him to a halt, taking him out of the story when he had to figure out its meaning.

Now, of course, this happens to all of us. Does an unfamiliar word take you out of the story? I think insouciant is fairly commonplace, but there are more difficult words or phrases you run into. Especially slang or foreign vernacular phrases sometimes.

Readers: should a writer use the simplest word to describe something to avoid this. Or do you like a wider vocabulary in your reading material? Do you resent the occasional trip to the dictionary? Do you as writers try to limit fancy pants words?

Is this kid insouciant on his new sled or what?

32 comments:

Scott Parker said...

Yes, I would consider that kid to be insouciant.

In my first Calvin Carter story, every single reader commented on my use of the word "Fratricide" as a word that no Texan would use in the 1880s. I can only assume it took them out of the story. But, when I tell them that the character is an actor trained in Shakespeare, they all nod and agree that the word was good. Go figure.

So, to answer your question, no: use whatever words come to you. Don't worry about the reader. Let them look them up if they need to.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I would think fratricide might have even been more common then. People tended to use formal terms more often--or at least in the nineteenth century books I've read.

David Cranmer said...

If the character would say it then it is fine.

I don't hear the salt of the earth using the word insouciant that often but professionals I can see mouthing it. Now if you have a professor using insouciant and one reader out of ten doesn't understand the meaning then I'd leave it.

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - I love that photographic "definition of insouciant." You ask an interesting question about words. I actually tend to go easy on the "50-cent words," because I want the reader to follow the story and care about the characters. A lot of the characters in my stories are educated, though, so they also don't use "baby words." I try really hard to strike a balance between using language that allows the reader to plunge into the story, while at the same time being precise, including when the precise word has more than two syllables, so to speak.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It's a third person story and not in dialogue.
Sometimes it is hard to know which words call too much attention to themselves but the last edit of a story usually removes a slew of such words.
This story was accepted somewhere (can't remember where!) so I guess it didn't bother the editor as much as it might have.

Naomi Johnson said...

I like the right word, and if that's a word that takes some readers out of the story for a moment, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. A bad thing is when the practice of using obscure words seems to stem from the author's desire to prove his superior knowledge, rather than any desire to improve or further the story. And I'm thinking of a particular author of nautical adventures here.

Charles Gramlich said...

One of the great joys of reading is learning new words. 99 percent of the time I find them clear from context so it doesn't slow me down, and I love the way new words slide off my tongue.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Part of it is style, I think. I think certain writers can get away with a lot of more obscure words than crime writers can. We are more plain-speaking on the whole.

Paul D. Brazill said...

I agree with Charles, as usual.

here's a good use of the ord in one of my fave mags!
http://thechap.net/content/section_news/?p=327

Rob Kitchin said...

Okay, I've looked it up now and yeah that kid looks to be a good example. I don't mind being stretched a little, but would rarely reach for the dictionary. I can either guess the meaning from the context or I just ignore it and carry on. One word doesn't make or break a story or bump me out of it. Dozens of them though and I tend to think it's pretentious sh*te and the author is regurgitating a dictionary to demonstrate some kind of supposed intellectual superiority.
Good prose does not mean using little known or used words, and it doesn't compensate for poor plot, weak characterization and unbelievable dialogue. At the same time, writing should not be reduced to the lowest common denominator, otherwise we'd be reading nothing but kids books. Words matter, but the story and its telling is everything.

Clare2e said...

Patti- I just did a post on this idea *sort of* inspired by a Stephen Fry rant. I, for one, like rich language, and know complex thinking happens among people who can't phrase it well, so the writer's skill is to help me follow the inner journey of someone who may not have the education or self-awareness to express it explicitly. If the third person voice includes insouciant observation, I'm all for it. Especially if, as Charles notes, it's the kind of thing I pick up from context. So much of my own vocabulary, too, came first from reading words in-scene.

I'm not reading fiction for what absolutely any ordinary person would say/think in the normal way they'd say it. I want the writer's particular viewpoint, and I want it to be interesting, whether in narrative approach, language, whatever! I'm reading to spark my imagination to want to follow along.

The current fad for stripped-down language has gone too far, for me, in many cases, because lots of writers aren't instead crafting careful prose poetry that delights with breathtaking simplicity. They're just shortcutting various areas of story development under the banner of realism. Feh!

Todd Mason said...

Everything you post about your writing group makes me respect them less.

Some of the most brilliant CF writers, such as Avram Davidson, Jerome Charyn, Dorothy Sayers, et al., didn't stay their hands when it came to employing the richer language. If it's the correct word in context and flow, it's the correct word, and lazy whiners can try extracting their crania from their recta.

(Also, you missed Kate Laity's FFB in your roundup below)

Joe Barone said...

My own opinion is you should be who you are. For some writers very simple is the order of the day. For others, something else. Ever read any Eric Hoffer? I loved his writing, especially The True Believer. I used to read him, in part, to learn new words.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Actually it was a guest to the group and the regular members of the group defended me vigorously. It just got me to thinking....I'll add Kate.

pattinase (abbott) said...

THE TRUE BELIEVER is one of my favorite books.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I agree also about the stripped down language going too far. I am so happy to find an actual descriptive passage, I nearly weep.

Deb said...

You have more control than I have--I would have said to the person who made the comment about the word, "Hey pal, it's called a dictionary--you might want to invest in one."

But, then again, he was just a visitor to your writers' group.

Meow!

K. A. Laity said...

I'm with Charles and Paul; learning new words is a gift. I wrote the story "Wixey" just to showcase words what I learned from Nabokov. Of course now that I'm finally getting around to Pale Fire I have a bunch of new ones.

It's all a matter of the voice, whether it's a character or the narrative one. People who champion "only" Anglo-Saxon words forget that neorxnawanga is an Anglo-Saxon word, too.

Richard R. said...

Often there is an adequate word and then there's the RIGHT word, the one that means what you want and nothing else, no more, no less. Use that one.

What drives me nuts is too many words or phrases in a foreign language, worst of all, latin. I don't mind of a Frenchman (or Belgian) says "merci" but if he has an entire sentence or two, untranslated, and there's no critical plot requirement for it, then it's just showing off.

pattinase (abbott) said...

That's the thing, isn't it? Sometime a word describes it perfectly and you have to use that word. But not all the time.

Todd Mason said...

I believe that's precisely what I snarled earlier.

Todd Mason said...

(And I have no love of the extensive untranslated passage, I must admit...though Babelfish can be a source of hilarity with these.)

Todd Mason said...

(sorry for the grumping)(but, really...this does seem like the kind of criticism I hear too often coming from writing groups, not always offered gently and not always unopposed)

John McFetridge said...

when it comes to a descriptive passage I'm more interested in why it's being described rather than how. Usually a few things are are highlighted and I always think there's some purpose in choosing to mention those rather than just listing everything. If a writer makes those kinds of choices consistently, the work will add up to a greater whole.

It's the same for word choice, it's not so much that a word may pull me out of the story because it's a rarely used word, but more likely that it doesn't fit in the whole.

I think it's true that stripped down language has gone too far and complaints about 'fratricide' are a good example. Especially on the grounds that people in an earlier time may not have understood it - after all, we're the ones talking about 'plain language' - probably more than any other era.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My group has been together so long that we seem unable to summon up much of any criticism of each other so one like this was actually exciting.

More and more I miss description. I know you can get a lot of it across through other means, but there is very little lovely descriptive writing going on. Precise writing, spot-on dialogue, other things, writers today excel at. But I could use some breathing time from so much forward movement. I would like to dally in the garden.
IMHO, of course.

Anonymous said...

I have no problem with words like 'insouciant' as long as they are used correctly. It's the misuse of infer/imply things like "very unique" and "'No,' he hissed" that take me out of a story.

Jeff M.

Erik Donald France said...

Go for broke. Use any words you want. It makes me happy to come across words I have to look up; the last novel in which this happened for me was Marilyn French's final novel, some words about food and cuisine.

Peter Bogdanovich uses "insouciant" to describe Cybill Shepherd when he first met her.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Cybil Shepherd has always seemed too insecure to merit that word to me. But it is all in the eye of the lover, I guess.

Charlieopera said...

I only know insouciant from a Gail Collins article last week (I think it was) ... but sometimes fancy pants words bother me and sometimes I appreciate them (forces me to learn something). I guess it all depends on whether I care enough about what I'm reading not to be offended/to go grab a dictionary.

Why I myself write in Brooklynese ... that English stuff is way too hard ...

Dorte H said...

I appreciate writers who have a large and nuanced vocabulary so if the word suits the story & your characters, I enjoy coming across a new word now and then. (What I dislike is writers who appear to me to be showing off when simpler words would be more natural. It´s not often I have that feeling, though).

As an English teacher, I also try to teach my students some strategies so they will read on insouciantly even though they meet new terms whenever they read a novel. If we were unwilling to learn something new, our collective vocabulary would crumble.

Mike Dennis said...

Horace McCoy's KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE features a gangster telling the story in the first person. Now, this guy happens to be a PhD, and he sneers at the criminals of the day. He tosses around words like "propliopithecustian" as if they were nothing, as if the reader automatically knew their meaning. It was a groundbreaking novel, so I didn't allow myself to be pushed out of the story by the central character's ego.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, the POV makes a big difference.